University Lowbrow Astronomers

The History of the Detroit Observatory

by Dave Snyder
Printed in Reflections: December, 1998.
Revised: September 2002

Detroit Observatory (North Side)

Henry Tappan (first president of the University of Michigan) wanted the University to have an observatory. He solicited funds from some citizens of Detroit and subsequently built an observatory just outside the city limits of Ann Arbor (it is now inside the city limits and is part of the University’s main campus). Because of the generosity of the Detroit donors, it became known as the Detroit Observatory (even though it is not located in Detroit).

The Detroit Observatory was used to conduct a variety of research including the following:

There are records of several expeditions conducted by different directors. These expeditions were to various locations in the U. S. and other countries, mainly to observe solar eclipses (solar eclipses are only visible from specific locations so you need to travel in order to see the eclipse).

At the beginning (with occasional exceptions) students and the general public were denied access to the observatory. There were complaints. The complaints seem to end around 1878 with a change in directors and when a separate building (later known as the Student’s Observatory) was constructed.

The observatory (now located between several dormitories and a block away from the University Medical Center) eventually became unsuitable for research. It is one of the oldest observatories in the United States that is still standing and has been recently renovated.

An chronology of events follows:

Detroit Observatory (East Side)

Photo Credits

The first photograph shows the east side of the Observatory as seen from Observatory Street and was taken in October 1999, after the restoration was complete. The second photograph shows the north side of the Observatory as seen from Ann Street and was taken in April 2002 (a horse chestnut tree partially obscures the observatory dome). Both photographs were taken by Dave Snyder.

Detroit Observatory Links

Asaph Hall, Sr. (Postgraduate work in Astronomy at University of Michigan, 1855).

Heber D. Curtis (Director of the Observatory between 1930-1941).



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